We always knew that Zelda was different, that there was something incredibly special about her. I call her my rainbow child. As Zelda’s mom, I struggled to reconcile the black-or-white views I was raised to never question, with the reality of gender diversity. Growing up, every issue was a moral issue. Having Zelda as a daughter has helped me to see the many beautiful colors and spectrums of identity that color this world.
Since kindergarten, Zelda has literally left a trail of glitter and sequins everywhere she goes. The first time Zelda tried to tell my partner and I that she was a girl on the inside was when she was 3 years old. It was Halloween, and Zelda desperately wanted a costume that included a dress and tutu. We bought her the tutu and dress, but also bought her an iron man costume and told her she could only wear the dress at home. I tried to explain my reasoning to her, telling her that I wanted to protect her from people who might say or do mean things because they just didn’t understand.
At the age of 4, during bath time, Zelda asked me why she had a penis and when it would “change to the thing girls have”. Zelda shared that she felt like “a girl on the inside”. My partner and I didn’t have the tools or the understanding to support and affirm Zelda’s gender identity, so we did what we thought was the right thing – we allowed her to have a few stereotypical girl’s clothes and shoes, but would not allow her to wear them to school.
Zelda has always loved pink, purple, and bright neon colors. Even her “boy things” were as feminine as she could find. When Zelda started her second-grade year, she REFUSED to get her hair cut, and stated that she would only go back-to-school shopping if she could “go into the girls’ section”. We tried every incentive we could think of to talk her into a haircut, and getting the usual boy’s clothes, but she was not having it. Zelda started having terrible emotional meltdowns, crying, almost hyperventilating several times over the course of 2 weeks.
My partner and I realized we needed help, that we didn’t have the tools or knowledge we needed to help Zelda. We went to the New Mexico Transgender Resource Center (NMTGRC) and attended a Parents of Transgender and Gender-Expansive Kids Playgroup. At the playgroup, we met an amazing advocate and co-director of NMTGRC named Adrien Lawyer. He let me say everything that was on my heart – even things I said out of ignorance, things I’m embarrassed to say I believed at that time. Then Adrien very gently educated my partner and I. It was like our eyes were opened to a reality we hadn’t realized was there the entire time.
After that first play group, we took Zelda to the store and let her pick out a new wardrobe. Every piece of clothing had a combination of glitter, sequins, rainbows, neon leopard print, or pink and/or purple. We stopped censoring her altogether, and she went to school the next Monday in a dress, with a huge stripped purple flower in her hair. Zelda’s emotional melt downs stopped immediately, but the bullying at school had only just begun.
We tried meeting with the school principal, district administration, even the district superintendent. Zelda’s school was adamant that they could not change her name in the school computer system or records without a legal name change and would not change her gender marker without “medical documentation of sex reassignment surgery”. After receiving support from the American Civil Liberties Union, Zelda is now able to use the school facilities of the gender with which she identifies, and after a legal name change the school now formally recognizes her as Zelda. Despite these little victories, Zelda continues to struggle with unaddressed bullying at school, and we have been unsuccessful in advocating for change in the school district’s requirement of “medical documentation of sex reassignment surgery” prior to changing a student’s gender marker.
Zelda’s school also informed us that Zelda would not be allowed to discuss her gender identity while at school. We were told that LGBTQ identities are not addressed in school curriculum because “it is up to the parents to decide how they feel about that sort of thing”. In order to help Zelda express herself and feel heard, we participated in several studies and advocacy efforts whose primary aim was to elevate the voices of our gender-expansive youth. Zelda has participated in the TransYouth Project out of the University of Washington, the Gender Moxie Project out of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and completed an interview titled “Courageous Young Transgender Girl Has a Simple but Powerful Message” with local news anchor Megan Cruz. At the age of 8, Zelda’s visibility and desire to share her story have helped her to become an advocate for her community.
Prior to Zelda’s official social transition at school, I tried to protect Zelda by censoring how she expressed herself. I’m ashamed to say that in many ways, my behavior made me Zelda’s first bully. If that sounds like a strong statement, it is. We required Zelda to repress her authentic self, when it wasn’t Zelda whose behavior needed to change. It was the systems that perpetuate these harmful black-or-white beliefs that needed to change. It’s students and parents who continue to try to police Zelda’s gender through hurtful words, that need changing.
Zelda is a fearless, courageous young lady with a powerful voice. She celebrates her identity, and hopes that by sharing her story, other kids might be brave enough to live as their authentic selves. My hope is that by sharing our story, other families of LGBTQ youth might recognize the gift that their children are to this world – and to their families. We still have so much from these courageous young people.